08 December 2008

Movie Rview: The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy (1932)
Directed by Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan, Arthur Byron, Bramwell Fletcher, Noble Johnson.

It looks like I’m on a mini-series of “Mummy Mondays.” After reviewing two Hammer mummy films, I’ve decided to swing through the classic Universal series of horror from the sands of Egypt.

This is going to be a bit of a drive-by review. The 1932 original is one of my favorite Universal Horrors, losing out only to The Bride of Frankenstein, but how much more can I add to the praise this classic has already received? There’s a reason I’ve never reviewed the 1933 King Kong—what more is there to say, really?

But there’s always something to say about a film this great, even if it repeats years of previous praise. I’ll make this review brief and then get on to the films you probably haven’t seen. (And if you haven’t seen The Mummy, what are you doing wasting your time reading about it? Go rent it or buy it right now.)

The story essentially revisits Dracula with an undead threat masquerading as a normal man who has his hypnotic sights on a young woman, and faces her lover and an elder scholar out to stop him. David Manning and Edward Van Sloan reprise their Dracula roles as the lover and scholar respectively. But where Dracula is a static film, suffering from the usual problems of early talkies, The Mummy is vivid and dynamic. Much of this I can attribute to director Karl Freund, a first-timer in the director’s chair, but already one of the legends of cinematography. Freund was a crucial force in German Expressionism, an innovator with the moving camera, and brought this energy to his first directorial assignment.

The story lays the foundations for all Egyptian-horror to come. In Egypt, an archaeological team unearths the tomb of Imhotep and discovers a curse. The mummy of Imhotep animates after an accidental reading of the scroll of life. Passing himself off as Egyptian Ardath Bey, Imhotep quests to resurrect his love Anck-es-en-Amon using her spirit inside twentieth-century woman Helen Grosvenor. He’ll kill anyone who gets in his way.

Imhotep only appears briefly in bandaged form; the typically silent stalking mummy wouldn’t appear until the next movie. Instead, Imhotep is a deadly sorcerer with ancient powers at his beck and call. The part sealed the deal on Boris Karloff as the era’s King of Horror. He had proved himself in two silent roles, the Frankenstein Monster and Morgan the mute servant in The Old Dark House, and now he showed he could master a talking monster as well. Along with the Frankenstein Monster, the withered wizard Imhotep is Karloff’s greatest role. Where the Monster is sympathetic, a child-like figure in a brute’s body, Imhotep is calculating evil like Dracula, and Karloff nails the part with a performance of amazing physical presence and tone-perfect vocal delivery. Imhotep seeks a lost love, but in his pursuit of it he has obviously lost his soul.

The other performances are also excellent, except perhaps David Manners, who makes no impression on me as the hero. I had the same problem with him in Dracula and The Black Cat, the two other Universal Horrors where he played the nominal hero. Van Sloan rips into his Van Helsing-esque role with far more energy than he did with the actual Van Helsing two years previously. Noble Johnson, a regularly featured African-American performer of the time (he would play the Island Chief in King Kong the next year) is a striking physical presence as the Nubian. And Broadway actress Zita Johann hits the bulls-eye for exotic beauty and starry-eyed mysticism as the re-incarnation of Princess Anck-en-en-Amon.

However, no Mummy review can pass without stopping to mention The Man Who Laughs. Bramwell Fletcher gets one of the juiciest one-scene roles in horror history as the archaeologist who cackles insanely after seeing Imhotep’s resurrection. I used to think that the saying “There are no small parts, only small actors,” was something actors with the big parts invented to keep the little folks in place, but then I think to what Fletcher does here and I realize that they have a point.

Of all the mummy movies, from any studio in any era, this one gives me the greatest feeling of the mystery and wonder of ancient Egypt, where the gods still reach across the centuries and into the lives of mortal modern men. It’s this mystical aura that has made the film stand out so much for me since I first saw it as a child; it’s drenched with wonder and awe, which never go out of style even with the passing of seven decades. The Mummy still casts a potent spell.

The Mummy was a big success for Universal Studios, but the dead would not rise in Universal’s Egypt again until 1940, and it wouldn’t be high priest Imhotep who rose, but Prince Kharis, in The Mummy’s Hand . . . next week.